Politics

'It Is Obviously Political': Timing Of Israeli Prime Minister's Speech To Congress Questioned

| by Kathryn Schroeder
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Democrats are considering a boycott of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March.

Netanyahu’s visit has been planned outside of normal protocol as it was done so by House Republicans without the involvement and blessing of the White House, reports CNN. Republican House Speaker John Boehner reportedly invited Netanyahu to speak.

"Colleagues of mine are very concerned about it and I'm troubled by it. I won't name names, of course," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois). ”It's a serious mistake by the speaker and the prime minister. The relationship between Israel and the United States has been so strong, so bipartisan."

Netanyahu is expected to criticize the ongoing negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran geared towards restricting Iran’s nuclear program. The talks have a deadline of the end of March.

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Concerns over the timing of the speech are great, as it will take place a mere days before Israeli elections.

”One of my closest friends -- one of the strongest supporters of Israel -- described this Boehner tactic as a disaster, a terrible disaster for Israel," Durbin said. “I won't speak for any other members but they've been talking to me about what is the right way to react to what could turn out to be a divisive event."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said a boycott is being discussed.

Neither Feinstein nor Durbin will say whether they plan on attending the speech.

"I take it very seriously," Feinstein said. "My concern is that it is obviously political and it uses the backdrop of the United States House of Representatives and the Senate two weeks before a political campaign and violates all the protocol that's always existed in terms of working this out with the President and I don't think that helps Israel."

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) has similar issues as Feinstein with the motivation and timing behind the speech.

“I just don’t know if it’s the proper response or not,” Cohen said. “But I just think it’s a mistake and it might be a proper protest. But I haven’t made that definite decision … With his election being so soon, and with the negotiations we have going on with Iran, he’s put himself in a political situation here that’s probably adverse to the best interest of Israel.”

A request for a meeting by Netanyahu with Obama has been denied. Secretary of State John Kerry does not plan to meet with him, either, while he is in Washington D.C., a State Department official told Politico.

Whether Vice President Joe Biden, who is President of the Senate and normally sits beside Boehner for foreign leader addresses, plans to attend is unknown. His office said they have not confirmed his schedule for that week yet.

There will be no move by Obama or his aides to tell Democrats whether they should attend the speech or not.

“We defer to Democratic members if they’d like to attend or not,” a White House aide said Tuesday.

An Israeli official released a statement on Tuesday that displayed hope that a resolution to the uproar over the invitation will be resolved by the time Netanyahu arrives in Washington, D.C.

“We appreciate the great bipartisan support for Israel in Congress and hope that members of Congress will be willing to listen to the prime minister on an issue that threatens America’s national security and Israel’s very survival,” the official said.

The pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, supports the speech.

“We encourage all members of Congress to attend this important speech by the Israeli prime minister,” said AIPAC’s Marshall Wittmann.

The left-leaning Israel advocacy group, J Street, has been publicly opposed and has told members of Congress to skip the speech. They have sent mass emails to members promoting a letter written by Cohen and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) that wants Boehner to reschedule the speech until after the Israeli elections.

“Momentum is on our side — and it’s growing,” J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote in an email. “Make it clear that Netanyahu’s speech shouldn’t go forward as planned.”

Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has voiced her criticism of Boehner inviting Netanyahu without first informing the White House, but still plans to attend.

“The leader attends every joint meeting and, of course, will attend should this speech take place,” Pelosi’s spokesman Drew Hammill said.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will attend.

“Frankly, the strong U.S.-Israel relationship, bipartisan relationship through the years, is stronger than any perceived slight or dispute,” Engel said. “I care about the U.S.-Israel relationship. It has always been bipartisan and will continue to be.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is supportive and thinks it would be a mistake for Democrats to not attend.

"I think that would not be appropriate treatment of the prime minister of Israel, and I'm sure they can respond to their constituents as to why they would do that," McCain said.

"The overriding reason he was invited is because of our concerns with the negotiation with Iran, which will then allow Iran to become a nuclear power," McCain continued. "There is not confidence on the part of Republicans in the negotiations that are going on. We believe they've already given away, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, too much. That's why we want to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu."

Should a large number of House and Senate Democrats not attend the speech it will be viewed as an embarrassment for Netanyahu.

Sources: Politico, CNN / Photo Source: CNN